New Zealand - Rotorua

Trip Start Dec 05, 2005
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Saturday, January 13, 2007

The first thing you notice when you approach Rotorua is the smell. It seeps in through the windows and the air-conditioning and quickly gets much stronger when you get into the very centre of the city. The smell can only be described as the end result of eating a dozen hard-boiled eggs and then sitting in a small room for days until the eggs start to play havoc with your bowel movements! The smell is actually caused by the strong concentration of sulphur in the air - produced by the geothermal reactions that are extremely active in the region. There is no getting away from the smell and you don't get used over the duration of any short stay (though it does diminish on the outskirts of the city).
 
Reaching Rotorua, we stayed our first night in a rather shoddy and scummy cabin in a caravan park (Lakeside Thermal Holiday Park) on the edge of Lake Rotorua. Our first task the following day was to find some alternative accommodation and after a quick drive up and down Rotorua's huge main street we came upon the Baden Lodge Motel (PIC) and booked in immediately. This place was infinitely better than the last place - a one-bedroom apartment with a private spa bath (PIC!), Sky TV and free wireless Internet! All this at only $20/night more than the cabin!
 
Unfortunately the rain had decided to follow us from Waitomo to Rotorua so our options were fairly limited in the town if we wanted to stay dry. Our first port of call was the local i-site (information centre) to book a few of the attractions and save a bit of money in the process.
 
 
With the rain easing we decided to start crossing things off our to-do list and took the 20-minute drive south of Rotorua to Waimangu Volcanic Valley. Rotorua is principally known for its thermal springs, geothermal and volcanic activity and consequently has a number of parks displaying natural examples of these phenomenons. The most difficult thing is choosing which of the parks to visit. Waimangu was one of our choices, mainly because its highly active volcanic features are more unique than in most other parks.
 
The park consists of a long walk around tree-filled valleys, with regular stops at lookouts over volcanic craters, lakes and thermal streams (PICS). The aptly named 'Inferno Crater Lake' (PIC) is the crowing glory of the park, with its steaming waters constantly fluctuating in level, occasionally spewing near boiling water through the overflow stream at one end. Once again we naively took a side route to complete a scenic walk, only to yet again be disappointed with very little 'scenic' value. Though the nearby bubbling pools and iodine terraces were impressive features once we came back to the regular pathway (PICS).
 
Waimangu also has a boat trip (for an additional price), which takes you out onto a lake and views the location of the once world-famous Pink and White Terraces. These were huge layered silica platforms created by the deposits of minerals from the waters that flowed over the top of the land. Unfortunately a massive eruption in the 19th century completely destroyed the terraces and there is now nothing to see - hence our decision not to bother with the boat trip!
 
 
A major attraction of New Zealand, and particularly within Rotorua, is a cultural Maori evening, involving a Maori performance and a traditional meal known as a Hangi (pronounced hang-ee). There are a number of these evenings all over the country but Rotorua has the lion's share, many of which are conducted by resort hotels. The most popular one is a large independent company called 'Tamaki' but this is supposedly quite commercialised and impersonal - more of a production line with a buffet meal.
 
We were advised to go to the 'Mitai' Maori evening, which is much smaller, more personal and generally far better. After a warm welcome from the host we walked down to the river that runs through the Maori village. As we waited by the riverside a large Maori Waka (war canoe) cruised past, paddled rhythmically by a team of chanting Maori 'warriors' dressed in the full regalia (PICS). The surrounding area was dotted with spooky Maori carvings, giving the place a really atmospheric feel (PICS).
 
From the riverside we were taken to a part of the Maori village for the performance. A 'chief' was chosen from our group and he was invited onto the stage to receive a peace gift from the leader of the Maori tribe. From this point the tribe performed a number of songs and dances (PICS) and were brilliant, if a little scary when they pulled the 'wide-eyed, tongue-out' look!
 
The chief was very informative and obviously had a lot of pride in his heritage, even going so far as to have the traditional Maori tattoos covering his legs and 'other regions' (PIC). These tattoos took around 55 hours to complete - Ouch!
 
After the performance it was time for our Hangi. The food was unveiled from its underground pit (PIC & VID) where it had been sitting on hot coals for the last few hours, steaming to perfection. The food was served up in a 'help yourself' style and was absolutely delicious, surprisingly so in fact - by the end of it we were stuffed. Luckily we had a chance to walk off the food as we were taken down to the rivers edge again to see the local glowworms and the rainbow springs (the tribes sacred spring (PIC)). The darkness made the surrounding Maori masks even more eerie! (PIC)
 
 
Our next trip was to the Buried Village. An old Maori and immigrant village that was almost completely covered by a mud flow caused by the same eruption that destroyed the pink and white terraces in 1886 in what is considered to be New Zealand's greatest natural disaster. The village has a number of huts and ruins (PICS) remaining from the town with articles that were preserved by the mud that flowed through on that fateful day. The village was actually a bit disappointing, struggling to truly identify what it was trying to show the visitor. The huts were excavated, showing their size and shape, but we felt that perhaps they should have been left buried to give a true idea of the devastation - or excavated and renovated to give an impression of how the original occupants lived - it did neither.
 
The most impressive part of the village was a large waterfall that spilled from a river running along one side of the village (PICS). A statue erected as a tribute to each of the generations who had lived in the village was also a poignant reminder of those who perished in the tragedy (PIC).
 
Just up the road from the Buried Village was a lookout over Lake Tarawera (the lake that produced the destructive mud flow) and an intricately carved Maori statue stood alongside (PICS).
 
We followed the Buried Village with a trip to the Rotorua Gondola. We wanted to take a quick trip up the gondola, partly for the views and also to ride the luge at the top. Unfortunately the unusually bright weather had brought out hoards of tourists and the attraction was heaving, resulting in a very long wait for the luge ride. We decided not to bother!
 
 
Apart from a glut of geothermal parks and Maori evenings Rotorua also has some more unusual attractions, first and foremost being the Agrodome. This is a farm - but with a difference! Firstly it conducts a daily Sheep Show, showing the many types of sheep that are bred in New Zealand, it also organises a Farm Tour around the grounds to see the various animals and produce that the farm possesses. In a strange twist the farm also has a number of more high-tempo activities, such as Zorbing, Bungee, Jet Boating, Swoop (giant swing) and a freefall simulator.
 
We did a combo deal to take in both the Sheep Show and the Farm Tour. The show was actually really good fun, allowing us to get up close to the sheep and some of them displaying very strong characters (PICS). The Merino was the star of the show and a bit of a diva - standing in pride of place at the top of the tiered platforms. The presenter gave a shearing demonstration (PICS), which looked a bit uncomfortable for the sheep involved, but he didn't seem to show any ill effects!
 
An unusual 'Duck' dog showed off his skills by herding a couple of geese around the stage before being upstaged by three sheep dogs who ran up and over the pyramid of sheep, stopping on top of them to pose for photographs (PICS). A few lambs were then released to be hand fed by some children plucked from the crowd (PIC) and we were then allowed to say hello to the lovely sheep dogs (PIC). One sheep had a rather large appendage - ironically framed by part of his name "The Horn" (PIC)!
 
The Farm Tour took us around the grounds of the enormous farm, allowing us to see their stumpy-legged cows, llamas, a donkey and some inquisitive ostriches (PIC) before driving us through their kiwi and olive orchards to their tasting shed. Here we were able to try their kiwi wine and homemade honey, and to try out a couple of horns recently shed by their resident stag, Branson (PICS).
 
Driving by a lone pot-bellied pig we then stopped at some overly friendly alpacas that were more interested in the bucket of feed than they were in us (PICS). One particularly cheeky sheep kept barging into us (PIC) - either looking for attention or food but by that time we were all out of feed so he had to go hungry!
 
 
Of all the exciting activities around the Agrodome site, we wanted to do the Zorb and the 'Freefall Extreme' simulator. The rain had put a dampener on the freefall simulator so we headed towards the Zorb area. Zorbing is a pretty simple concept; you climb into a huge plastic inflatable ball and fling yourself down a hill! You can either be strapped into the ball thus going head over heels all the way down, or you can get the ball filled with water and tumble down the hill like your part of a giant washing machine.
 
Verdi had fancied doing the 'harnessed' version since hearing about it a couple of years ago whereas Andrew was more interested in the Hydro Zorb water-filled experience. Once we got to the check-in we discovered that Verdi was just too short to do the harness Zorb safely and could only do the Hydro. A lack of swimming costume and the fear that lolloping around in the Zorb could damage her knees or ankles Verdi decided to sit on the sidelines while Andrew did his Hydro Zorb down the zigzag route (maximum potential for wetness, dizziness and injury!!) (PICS & VID)
 
Suitably soaked but luckily without injury Andrew emerged victorious from the Zorb (PIC). He deliberately tried to fling himself around the sphere, doing somersaults and flips to enhance the experience - until the speed and disorientation caught up with him and he was at the mercy of the rolling ball.
 
 
The biggest of Rotorua's geothermal parks is Wai-O-Tapu thermal reserve. The park is known for its variety of features and vivid colours that are said to be far better than any other park in the country. As soon as you enter the park you are hit by the powerful stench of Sulphur fumes emanating from the surrounding fumaroles, craters and lakes. It is far worse here than in the city centre, with some areas forcing you to cover you mouth and nose to prevent retching.
 
The first feature we came across was a large crater with a bubbling mud pool lurking at the bottom (PIC). The concentric circular patterns were rhythmically interrupted by another bubble and a subsequent waft of eggy aroma. Another nearby mud feature was the Devils Ink Pots (PIC).
 
The next area we encountered was Thunder Crater (PIC), though we're not sure the picture does the area justice - there must have been another, more impressive thunder crater somewhere else, maybe not as loud or smelly though!
 
On the way to Champagne Pools we noticed a crater that looked spookily like the British Isles so stopped to take a quick piccie (PIC). Champagne Pools are the main attraction at Wai-O-Tapu and are known for their myriad of colours and the bubbling, steamy waters of the giant lake. The first part of Champagne pool that we arrived at was Artists Palette with its colours caused by different minerals in the waters; Orange (Antimony Oxide), Green (Ferrous Iron), Yellow (Colloidal Sulphur), and Grey (Sulphurous Mud). The boardwalk over the lake enables visitors to get right out into the middle of the lake without coming into contact with the hot, acidic water and damaging its delicate structure. On the other side of the lake the steam was caught by the wind and covered us completely as we stood on the shore (PIC). The edges around the lake have brilliantly contrasting colours and some areas clearly show the bubbling effect that gives the lake its name (PICS).
 
As we continued beyond Champagne Pool the environment became more sulphurous and the rocks around us showed increasing amounts of the yellow crystals (PICS).
 
More walking, more steaming craters and more eggy stench followed until we reached the final feature in the park, the amazingly coloured Devils Bath (PIC). The water is dyed by the diluted sulphur leeching from the rocks and gives the water a luminous yellow glow that really has to be seen to be believed - it looked just as if someone had dropped tons of industrial dye into the pool.
 
Just up the road from Wai-O-Tapu is a large mud pool that can be driven to and entered free-of-charge. The mud pool is actually really impressive and far better than any of the mud pools within the park. We stood around for ages watching the mud bubble away, hypnotised by the circular patterns and the globules of mud occasionally shooting up to a metre in the air (PICS)!
 
 
We dedicated our final full day in Rotorua to relaxation, at the Polynesian Spa. The spa has a number of different areas that visitors can use. The cheapest is the Family Spa (full of kids!) but the quieter option is the Lake Spa Retreat. This area has four mineral pools of varying temperature from a comfortably warm 36 degrees to a prickly 42 degrees! The Spa also has therapies including a mudpack and a honey massage. We decided to go for an Aix Spa Massage, which involves a coconut oil massage under a collection of warm water jets.
 
The massage was a surreal experience, the warm water giving the massage an extra dimension - the strangest thing was when the water was turned off as it felt like you were left naked, even though we still had our swimming gear on!
 
We spent a couple of hours at the spa and emerged completely relaxed - almost too relaxed as we still had to make our way back to the apartment before falling asleep! The Polynesian Spa session was really good value at $100 for the two of us - especially as we could have stayed there for as long as we wanted for that price.
 
 
Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Park has one key feature that we didn't see when we went there earlier in the week. The Lady Knox Geyser. The geyser is actually based just outside of the park and remains closed for most of the day, hence why we missed it the first time. The geyser is stimulated each day at 10:15am to induce eruption. It would erupt naturally every 24 - 48 hours but as this could not be predicted the park uses soap powder to break the surface tension in the geyser lake each day to give the visitors a regular show. This may not be the most natural of scenarios but at least it gives us punters something to see! (PICS) The geyser starts off slowly but soon builds to a height of around 15 - 20m and it quite an impressive sight.
 
 
Back in Rotorua we spent some time organising a few details, including our expired car registration before returning to the car to continue up to the north coast. Upon reaching the car we found that we had a fine for not displaying a valid registration - because we had to take it to the post office to get the new one! We then had to go through the rigmarole of getting the fine rescinded before we could leave town - what a kafuffle!
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